Policymakers have a responsibility to plan for all children. They could learn from Finland says Joe Humphreys.
Imagine a place where there were no private schools, no waiting lists, no demands for baptism certs; a place where all children – irrespective of faith or ethnicity – went to their local school.
Such a place exists. It’s called Finland. But such a place was once envisioned here too. In the 19th century, official policy was the creation of interdenominational schools where children of different backgrounds would be educated side by side.
However, as the late Garret FitzGerald observed, this was “comprehensively sabotaged” by the Protestant religious authorities, and over time the denominational structure became more embedded.
Mr FitzGerald, whose Irish Primary Education in the Early Nineteenth Century was published posthumously in 2013, said the State had remained “de jure interdenominational” until 1965. This was the year of new national school rules declaring that the State “gives explicit recognition to the denominational character of primary schools”.
Today new forms of segregation are emerging. Some are religious but more worrying perhaps is the ethnic segregation highlighted in an analysis this week by Pamela Duncan of the Irish Times Data team.
This shows that 23 per cent of primary schools cater for four in five immigrant children. In 20 schools, more than two-thirds of pupils were from a non-Irish background.
This caused little surprise among educational experts, many of whom had pointed out that plans by successive governments to create “diversity of patronage” would only deepen segregation.
The primary teachers union the INTO has long advocated the development of Community National Schools as the norm. Only a handful of such schools have opened since 2008 and they – along with Educate Together schools – have been found to be the most inclusive of immigrant children and other minorities.
In contrast, Gaelscoileanna have the lowest intake of both immigrant children and pupils with special educational needs – an apparent consequence of their status as middle-class schools.
The debate shouldn’t pit one patron against another, or be turned into a means of criticising parents looking for that extra “edge” for their child.
However, policymakers have a responsibility to plan for all children. They could take some lessons from the Finns.
The debate will continue at the Labour party conference this weekend where a motion has been tabled urging Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan to reverse plans for creating more diversity of patronage.